Chris Leben spoke exclusively to us here at Pundit Arena MMA and explained how the past few years have given him a new lease of life.
Chris Leben’s name is one that remains synonymous with the golden era of mixed martial arts and, in particular, the legendary first season of The Ultimate Fighter – a run that did wonders at solidifying the sport in a time where its long-term stability hung in the balance.
Alongside future stars Forrest Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, Kenny Florian, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez and more, Leben was among the most popular contestants on the landmark season of the show and when his UFC contract came to him, he welcomed it with open arms and ran with it.
And that popularity continued well into his time in the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion. During his peak years, Leben was known as an action fighter through and through – showcasing a reckless style inside the octagon, a style that, in many ways, was mirrored by his lifestyle outside of competition.
Following a four-fight streak of losses between 2011 and 2013, Leben announced his retirement from the sport – citing the advancement of the game and the risk of serious injury as the primary reasons for his decision.
As is the case with many MMA retirements, 2016 saw Leben move towards a return to the cage – signing a multi-fight deal with Scott Coker-run Bellator before his progress would be derailed by something that would become a life-changing event.
Mandatory medical tests taken by The Crippler in the run-up to his promotional debut found a life-threatening abnormality to the left ventricle of his heart – one that forced his hand into a second, and seemingly permanent, dip into retirement.
From there, it became clear to Leben that several major changes were needed and thankfully, he began to adopt a life built around healthy and clean living.
After stepping away from competition and diving deep into the process of re-evaluation, Chris made his triumphant return – this time, to take on the blossoming sport of bareknuckle boxing under the BKFC banner.
Speaking to us here at Pundit Arena MMA, he explained the biggest difference between the man who was forced to retire for a second time back in 2016 and the fighter who has emerged from those shadows.
“I’m just embracing it now. Having been in the limelight and having had those big fights, having made all that money and then having went out and blown all that money.
“I didn’t train like I should have for those last couple of fights and I feel as though I sold myself short. You can never right a wrong but I do feel like I can write a new chapter, I can write a better closing chapter for my martial arts career. It’s a very exciting time to be me.
“Where my head is, my mental status, how I’m approaching it. For certain now, having stepped away from competition for so long, coming back, I’m really trying to embrace everything about it, my coaches, embrace the fight-camp, embrace those hard training rounds.
“Before, I had been doing it day-in, day-out for so long that it really had become a job to me. Now, after taking some time off, I realised that this is what I love to do and I’m at a point in my life where I am healthy enough to do it.
“Mentally, I’m sharper and clearer than ever and I’m really enjoying it.”
We’re seeing an increasing number of stars dipping their toes into this new and exciting venture but when the prospect of dropping the gloves altogether was first offered, it was ignorance more than anything that caused Chris Leben to turn it down.
However, upon digging into the sport a bit more, he discovered that it was tailor-made for his approach in there.
“At first when they called I said I was retired. I had heard everybody talking about it but I hadn’t really watched it so I got on YouTube and I started watching some of these fights and I realised that this fight is designed for the way that I fight.
“This is beautiful. If I’m going to make a comeback – and I had been thinking about making a comeback to MMA. I had been kicking the idea around for the previous few months – I got approached about the bareknuckle, said no initially but then went back and looked at it and thought that my style would work out well in this kind of avenue.”
If there was any pressure to be felt within Leben for both his debut in the sport and his opening bout under the BKFC banner, it wasn’t noticeable from the outside looking in.
A pair of quick knockout victories proved that Chris’ gut feeling was correct but even still, he went on to explain how the nerves were still very much in play as he walked to the ring to take on Phil Baroni and later Justin Baesman.
“The nerves are always there. If those go away, you’re in the wrong sport. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who says they’re going to make a comeback and goes out there and does horrible, someone who should have just stayed retired. We see that all of the time.
“I wanted to go out and perform well. I had more anxiety about going out there and performing well than anything else.
Now training full-time in The Arena gym – where he also works as a coach, Leben praised those who surrounded him during his recent struggles outside the ring and their role in creating the perfect environment for him to make this second-run as a fighter a successful one.
“It really has been fantastic. Since I’ve been there they have embraced me. I started training there hoping to return to Bellator. Ultimately, I ended up failing those medical exams but they liked me so much that they hired me on as a coach.
“Since then, I’ve been coaching full time there and training full-time and it’s one of the only gyms I’ve been where none of the coaches have any beef with each other. We’re a good unit. Everybody works well together and there’s a couple of us that coach the fight team. We all kind of know our roles, we do our part and it seems to work out really well.”
June 22 will likely see Chris return to the BKFC ring – this time to face the former Bellator fighter Brennan Ward – a man who is also known for his penchant for a high-octane brawl.
After two quick knockout victories, Leben would be forgiven for expressing his confidence in his ability to get the win this time around but upon asking him, he doubled down on the fact that he is very much living in the moment and taking things very seriously.
“June 22. I don’t think it’s official yet. I know David Feldman, the president [of BKFC], had dropped the name on another show he did. It’s Brennan Ward.
“I always kind of take it one fight at a time, you never want to get ahead of yourself you know. I know that my last two fights were easy, you never really have three easy ones in a row. Right now, it’s just prepare for the night fight – plan for a war. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
“If we get a quick knockout, great, then we move on to the next one. But ultimately, I’m taking it one fight a time for where I’m at in my life, in my career, my age.
“Right now I know I’m healthy, I know I feel great, I’m excited – I already started my camp for the next one. Things are good.”
And while there will no doubt be many fans who would love to see this legend make his return to the multi-faceted world of mixed martial arts, Leben, while not dismissive of the thought, is just focussed on making bareknuckle work for now.
“I love MMA, it’s what I have done my whole life. For the current moment at hand, I’m pretty committed to this bareknuckle thing and I want to give it 100%.
“So right now, I’m on the bareknuckle thing but I still train jiu-jitsu, I still train my ground game so why not MMA if I’m doing bareknuckle anyway?”
Learn more about the Chris Leben story here: https://www.thearenagym.com/chrislebenstory/
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena